In Other Words

The Browns of Cal­i­for­nia: The Fam­ily Dy­nasty That Trans­formed a State and Shaped a Na­tion by Miriam Pawel

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by Miriam Pawel, Blooms­bury, 469 pages

If Gov. Ed­mund Ger­ald “Jerry” Brown Jr. (D-Calif.) were con­sid­er­ing a fourth pres­i­den­tial bid, Miriam Pawel set the scene for him in her lav­ishly re­searched epic, The Browns of Cal­i­for­nia: The Fam­ily Dy­nasty That Trans­formed a State and Shaped a Na­tion. Now that Brown is eighty years old, how­ever, such a run is un­likely. But it is a trib­ute to his fresh and last­ing pro­gres­sivism that we still think of him as an up-and-comer. Just re­cently, “Gover­nor Moon­beam,” as Chicago colum­nist Mike Royko dubbed him in the 1970s for his far-out ideas, vowed that his state would be run­ning on 100-per­cent re­new­able en­ergy by 2045.

Jerry’s rise to power was al­ter­nately pre­dictable and pre­pos­ter­ous. Son of Ed­mund Ger­ald “Pat” Brown Sr., Cal­i­for­nia’s gover­nor from 1959 to 1967, Jerry has eclipsed his fa­ther’s short-lived po­lit­i­cal ca­reer. He be­came one of the state’s youngest gov­er­nors in 1975, at the age of thirty-seven. He was elected three decades later in 2010 as the old­est gover­nor of the state. In the in­terim, he ran un­suc­cess­fully three times for pres­i­dent (1976, 1980, 1992), was de­feated for a U.S. Sen­ate seat in 1982, and then re-emerged as mayor of Oak­land from 1999-2007.

While Jerry is the pro­tag­o­nist in Pawel’s fam­ily saga, his story is in­ex­tri­ca­ble from that of his fa­ther, who led the Golden State dur­ing a stretch of un­par­al­leled growth and ex­pan­sion at a piv­otal mo­ment in Amer­i­can his­tory. An af­fa­ble good ol’ boy in the Demo­cratic Party mold of the day, Pat Brown was warm and gen­uine with an in­fec­tious belly laugh, though neither dy­namic nor a skill­ful or­a­tor. “Pat is just not a whip-cracker at heart, and peo­ple know it and like him for it,” one of his clos­est friends put it. Dur­ing the 1960 Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion, the Kennedys thought Brown bun­gled JFK’s nom­i­na­tion. They dis­liked him for his lack of lead­er­ship and fealty to a po­lit­i­cal ma­chine. “The Kennedys were ev­ery­thing Pat Brown was not: pol­ished, glam­orous, wealthy, Har­vard­e­d­u­cated, and ruth­less,” Pawel writes.

Brown Sr. was tone-deaf about the cru­cial mat­ters of the day. When the Watts neigh­bor­hood of Los An­ge­les erupted in 1965, he ap­pointed John McCone, a re­ac­tionary for­mer direc­tor of the CIA, to lead an in­ves­ti­ga­tory panel into the vi­o­lence. Ac­cused of gloss­ing over the racial and eco­nomic plight that led to the ri­ots, McCone’s rec­om­men­da­tions were de­scribed by a na­tional civil rights com­mis­sion as “as­pirin where surgery is re­quired.” The elder Brown mis­judged the pulse of the na­tion again when he vac­il­lated about the death penalty and staunchly sup­ported Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son’s es­ca­lat­ing Viet­nam War — both is­sues that his son would ve­he­mently op­pose. His in­con­sis­tency to­ward the do­mes­tic and for­eign pol­icy crises of the day weak­ened him, and in 1966 he was de­feated for a third term by Ron­ald Rea­gan in a land­slide.

By then, keen on his own po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tion, Jerry thought his fa­ther un­der­es­ti­mated the power shift from North­ern to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and vowed not to make the same mis­take. Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Yale Law School (an ed­u­ca­tion paid for by one of his fa­ther’s po­lit­i­cal bene­fac­tors, “Un­cle Lou” Lurie, the owner of San Fran­cisco’s lux­ury Mark Hop­kins Ho­tel) he took a po­si­tion with a “bou­tique law firm” in Los An­ge­les at a time when half of all Cal­i­for­nia vot­ers lived in the boom­ing LA tele­vi­sion mar­kets. Jerry em­braced the vi­sion of Cal­i­for­nia that the writer Wal­lace Steg­ner had fa­mously called “the ge­og­ra­phy of hope” — a para­dox of mag­nif­i­cence and be­night­ed­ness. “More spec­tac­u­larly en­dowed than any other of the 50 states,” Steg­ner wrote, “… Cal­i­for­nia is a place where you can find what­ever you came look­ing for, and right next to it that which you most hoped to avoid.”

Jerry be­came his fa­ther’s an­tithe­sis. He “took for granted his fa­ther’s con­nec­tions and his own priv­i­leged po­si­tion, but he also wanted to es­cape,” Pawel writes. In short or­der, the “quick-wit­ted loner” stood in stark con­trast to ev­ery­thing his fa­ther em­bod­ied. “Pol­i­tics and gov­ern­ment blurred seam­lessly in an era with few eth­i­cal qualms or rules. State staff worked on cam­paigns. Neither of­fi­cials nor lob­by­ists re­ported din­ners, Christ­mas pre­sents, or gift mem­ber­ships.” Frank Si­na­tra gave Brown Sr. golf clubs, and Walt Dis­ney gave the fam­ily an­nual VIP treat­ment at Dis­ney­land.

Jerry took a hard stand against what he called the “back­room pol­i­tics” of his fa­ther’s era and mi­lieu. He bri­dled at the quid pro quos epit­o­mized by his fa­ther’s sud­den post-gu­ber­na­to­rial mil­lion­aire sta­tus gained at the largesse of an In­done­sian mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor and oil ty­coon, even as he ben­e­fited from it. Jerry ac­cepted fi­nan­cial help from his dad to buy a house in Lau­rel Canyon — a hip and cushy LA neigh­bor­hood that would be the head­quar­ters of his po­lit­i­cal surge.

The Water­gate scan­dal of 1973 “res­onated with a theme Jerry had ham­mered” for years, ac­cord­ing to Pawel. “The cor­rupt­ing in­flu­ence of money and the im­por­tance of cam­paign fi­nance re­form” launched him on his po­lit­i­cal path. Once elected gover­nor, he ap­pointed women and mi­nori­ties to hun­dreds of high-level po­si­tions. Na­tional me­dia out­lets were baf­fled by his huge pop­u­lar­ity, de­spite the fact that “he is not a par­tic­u­larly lik­able young man” who asks “hos­tile and ir­rev­er­ent ques­tions,” as the New

York Times Mag­a­zine once put it. With char­ac­ter­is­tic and en­dur­ing self-con­fi­dence, just six months into his sec­ond term as gover­nor, Jerry be­gan a for­mal path to a dis­as­trous pres­i­den­tial run.

The Browns of Cal­i­for­nia is a sym­pa­thetic and fas­ci­nat­ing study of a fa­ther and son, and an el­e­gant nar­ra­tive his­tory of a com­pli­cated land and its peo­ple. — Sally Den­ton

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